Making Good Speakers Great

My Voice Trails Off

The Problem with Dropping Phrases

Imagine eating at a restaurant, and when the meal arrives, the waiter doesn't bother coming to your table. He just stands halfway across the room and sort of tosses the plate in the general direction of your table. That would be an interesting dining experience! Or suppose, when the food does arrive, the waiter comes to your table, but just as he’s about to place the food in front of you, he lets his hand drop and the food hits the floor. Again, that would be a memorable dining experience—but not in a good way. Many, many of the speakers I coach are doing with their words what our imaginary waiter is doing with the food.

I call it dropping phrases. It’s commonly referred to as trailing off. It happens when the speaker allows the last few words of a phrase or a sentence to diminish to the point that it becomes hard to hear or even inaudible. Dropping phrases has significant consequences for you, as a speaker, specifically, a loss of clarity, a loss of credibility, and a loss of impact.

There’s a loss of clarity because—at least in English—you often have important words occurring right at the end of the phrase or at the end of a sentence. So if you’re dropping phrases, if you’re trailing off, your listeners are missing important information, so it becomes hard to understand. There’s a loss of credibility because when you’re dropping phrases you’re essentially pulling back at the end of the phrase. So there’s a decreased amount of commitment and engagement in your delivery. You come across as less authoritative, less strong. And finally, there’s a loss of impact because when you allow yourself to trail off at the end of a phrase, there’s less energy carrying that message to your listeners and they’re not as affected by what you say.

So, what’s the solution? What skills will help us avoid trailing off and dropping phrases? Well, four things. The first strategy would be learning how to breathe through the end of the phrase. When you make sound, you’re exhaling. Speaking is essentially an exhale of breath, so make sure as much breath is flowing out on the last word as you had flowing out on the first word. Lots of breath should be flowing out.

The second thing you can do is make sure you start the phrase on a pitch that’s high enough it allows you to drop down a little bit and still end up in your natural range. If your pitch is too low, your voice can’t vibrate that well by the time it gets to the end. Start just a little bit higher so you’re still in the easy range of your voice when you reach the end. Learn how to move everything up a little bit so you’re staying more in the middle of your speaking range and not trying to work down at the very bottom of your range.

The third strategy is to make sure the last word is vibrating just as fully as the first word. Make sure the tone of the last few words is just as clear and just as full as the first words in the phrase. If it’s breathy, scratchy and raspy, you won’t be clear.

The fourth thing you can do to avoid dropping phrases is to imagine yourself opening toward the end of the phrase instead of closing up as you approach the end of the phrase. Consciously imagine getting more open physically as you get closer to the end instead of allowing yourself to collapse and close up. Open toward the end of the phrase.

If you breathe through the end of the phrase, and the last word vibrates just as fully as the first one, if you make sure you start on a pitch that keeps you in your natural speaking range, and if you work with a sense of opening toward the end of the phrase, you’ll speak with enhanced clarity. People will get what you’re saying very easily. You’ll be more fully engaged as a speaker and your listeners will be more fully engaged with what you’re saying. Your message will land with a lot more impact.

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